Sustainable LivingTaking Action

Guardians of the Owyhee: How an Unlikely Coalition Formed to Protect a Natural Wonderland

Aug 19th 2021

By Sam Laird Senior Content Writer

Films By: Lauren Veen and Vincent Tremblay

For some, it’s the sheer red-rock canyon walls towering over winding rivers that make them fall in love. For others, it’s the sight of bighorn sheep picking through rocks to graze on grass and shrubs. Still others are seduced by undulating plains swaying symphonically in the breeze. Then there are the hundreds of archaeological sites that evidence the indigenous Northern Paiute, Bannock, and Shoshone tribes’ ancient history. And at night, a sky that comes alight with countless glittering stars and a spectacular view of the Milky Way.

No matter the feature that captures them, it seems everyone fortunate enough to discover the Owyhee Canyonlands falls in love. Now, amid unprecedented threats to the region, the Owyhee’s irresistible appeal has spawned a network of unlikely allies—environmentalists and hunters, tribal representatives and ranchers, as well as others—working to protect the area for future generations.

“It’s the largest conservation opportunity in the Lower 48,” says Corie Harlan, campaign manager for the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), which works to protect the state’s high-desert eastern half.

The Owyhee isn’t located in the dewy Pacific Northwest, wide-open Montana, mysterious Appalachia, or any of the other regions that likely come to mind when Americans think of their country’s natural wonderlands. Rather, the Owyhee sits in the arid southeastern section of Oregon, where the Beaver State abuts Idaho and Nevada. Frequently referred to as “Oregon’s Grand Canyon,” the Owyhee Canyonlands span 2.5 million acres. The greater Owyhee region spans some 7 million acres inhabited by only a few thousand people and traversed by less than 200 miles of paved roads.

The Owyhee’s varied landscape was shaped 15 million years ago by the Yellowstone hotspot, before that volcanic hotspot moved east and formed the region that would become the world’s first national park. Today, the Owyhee supports some 200 species of wildlife and is one of the most remote, unpopulated, unspoiled landscapes in the contiguous US. If you dream of getting away, the Owyhee just might be the place you’re dreaming of.

“In an increasingly busy, connected world, that’s a really rare and wonderful thing,” Harlan says.

For more than a century, as the American West boomed, the Owyhee’s remoteness helped shield it from industry and development. Now the Owyhee faces multiple threats, which could disrupt or even destroy the landscape and ecosystem that have survived for so long.

“The area, I’m going to use the word ‘fragile,'” says Diane Teeman of the local Wadatika Paiute tribe. “And that might mean its end.”

Deposits of gold, silver, uranium, bentonite, and lithium—a key metal in rechargeable batteries—make the area attractive for mining interests. An hour’s drive to the east, Boise’s explosive growth in recent years has spilled into the Treasure Valley region at large. Idaho was the second-fastest growing state in the nation from 2010 to 2020, with its population swelling by more than 17 percent. And amid climate change, the risks of drought and wildfire loom large.

“You have really unlikely allies coming together to try and figure out, ‘What does a better future for this landscape look like?’”

—Corie Harlan, Oregon Natural Desert Association

In response to these varied threats, people from varied backgrounds, demographics, occupations, and motivations—and from groups that historically have not seen eye-to-eye—have banded together to protect an area of which they all feel fiercely protective. Backed by environmental groups including The Conservation Alliance, this broad coalition includes activists, ranchers, tribal members, small business owners, nature lovers, hunters, and more. The collective result is real hope that the Owyhee will receive the protection the region’s advocates say it needs and deserves.

“There are so many different people who care so much about this place,” says ONDA’s Harlan. “And so you have really unlikely allies coming together to try and figure out, ‘What does a better future for this landscape look like?'”

In 2019, US senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who both represent Oregon on Capitol Hill, introduced the Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act after spending months consulting with local conservationists and stakeholders. The 2019-2021 Congress adjourned without taking action on the legislation. Now, with a new Congress and new administration in place, advocates for the Owyhee hope the bill will be reintroduced and passed later this year. It would protect the Owyhee River and more than 1 million acres of surrounding wilderness; preserve habitat for big horn sheep, elk, deer, and sage grouse; facilitate responsible recreation and ranching practices; and safeguard sacred tribal locations and resources. It would also allow for continued grazing by ranchers, and local road usage; a 2016 study found that recreational activities contribute almost $70 million per year to communities in the area.

“I think there’s a great opportunity right now and in the future to apply some pressure and make sure that we address what we’re losing before it’s gone,” says Michael O’Casey, a hunter and field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

In a country that sometimes feels increasingly divided along red-blue and urban-rural lines, perhaps projects like the movement to protect the Owyhee represent a chance to find common ground. Local conservationist Tim Davis says action and coalition-building start with establishing a connection to the land.

“Talk to your neighbors, get them out into landscapes that they may be cautious to go out in but you’ve been there,” says Davis, a hiker, nature lover, and founder of the non-profit Friends of the Owyhee. “One of our big things is, get people on the land to get them to fall in love with the land. Once they fall in love with the land, they’re going to want to protect the land for future generations.”

What follows are short profiles of five coalition members working to protect the Owyhee. As you’ll see, they have varying backgrounds and motivations, but they are united by a passionate desire to protect a treasured natural area.

The Organizer: Corie Harlan

“The first time I came to the Owyhee, it literally brought me to my knees,” Corie Harlan says of discovering the area while on an ONDA stewardship trip several years ago. “It was so amazing and just that instant moment of knowing there’s something really, really special here with this landscape.”

Once you get her talking about the Owyhee Canyonlands, Harlan’s passion is palpable. It’s hard to get her to slow down.

“It’s like southern Utah dipped in fudge, just a land with incredible geologic features,” she says. “Because of all that volcanic activity you have this molten froth that kind of got spewed everywhere. It created all these unique micro-climates. That means that you have 28 species, at least, of endemic plants that grow here in the Owyhee and nowhere else in the world.”

“I think just as important is also listening to people that don’t necessarily share your perspective but have a lot of insight and values that matter to them.

—Corie Harlan, Oregon Natural Desert Association

Harlan describes her current role as campaign manager for ONDA as “a sprint, a marathon, and a rollercoaster all rolled into one.” Some days, she might be in the field meeting with others who care about Oregon’s high desert. Other days, she might be in the office plowing through phone calls and emails. But no matter the setting, Harlan says “empowering and collaborating with people” is central to her job.

“Having people find their voice and feel like they’ve got the tools and confidence to step up and raise their voice on behalf of places that they love is just a wonderful thing to do,” she says. “I think just as important is also listening to people that don’t necessarily share your perspective but have a lot of insight and values that matter to them.”

When the current drive to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands began gaining momentum around 2014, ONDA took a leadership role in connecting various stakeholders to create a united front. That broad coalition kept diligently working toward its goals through multiple White House administrations, the coronavirus pandemic, 2020’s political chaos, and more.

“The core of what really led to the current legislation we have is this recognition that when the landscape is healthy and thriving and vibrant, we all win,” Harlan says. “Ranchers win. Conservationists win. Wildlife wins. Fish win.”

If the Owyhee does not receive protection, she says, “we would truly be losing one of our last, best, most wild places. And we can’t let that happen. We won’t let that happen. There are just too many people who care about this place. Protecting this place has become a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.”

Ultimately, Harlan’s philosophy is simple: “It’s people that make good things happen for wild places.”

The Tribal Leader: Diane Teeman

You won’t find anyone with deeper roots in the Owyhee area than Diane Teeman. Teeman is a Wadatika Paiute from Burns, Oregon. She’s currently the tribe’s culture and heritage director, as well as the vice chairperson of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council. Her tribe has more than 5,000 square miles of traditional territory in the Owyhee region.

“Our ancestors have been here since time immemorial,” Teeman says. “We have oral histories of when there was nothing but water here, nothing but ice. And they talk about how the land slowly became drier through the years.”

The area holds pride as well as trauma for Teeman and her people.

“The Owyhee Canyonlands are one of those areas that have both a continuous relationship with families, but also in the post-contact period, have historic memory of some very tragic things occurring,” she says.

Teeman says the rugged terrain was a place that Paiute people would often go to “disappear” when the US Cavalry—notorious for slaughtering indigenous tribes as the country expanded westward—was in the area. Much of that trauma carries through to today.

“It’s hard for our culture because a lot of the food sources and the other animals and plants that we interact with and have reciprocal relationships with are no longer here,” she says. One example: Creating a traditional rabbit-skin blanket requires about 100 jackrabbit pelts, but today it’s difficult even to hunt enough rabbits to feed one family.

“What I hope for the Owyhee is the same thing that I hope for all of our lands, and that’s that we can return to some level of balance,” Teeman says. “I spend a lot of time talking with management agencies for public lands about how they can work with the tribe to further incorporate our traditional values and our traditional management structures and philosophies into what they are doing.”

After all, the Paiute and other tribes are the original stewards of the land and ecosystems that today are called the United States of America.

“We are made of this place and made for this place,” Teeman says. “You hear it was wilderness and untouched by man. Well, no, that’s not true at all. We have been managing the land and having that relationship with the land since time immemorial, and managed to keep it in a state where it was sustainable for not only ourselves, but everything else that lives here. I’m very proud of that fact that our tribe traditionally was able to maintain that strong of a relationship in an area that is so fragile.”

Any coalition working to determine the Owyhee’s next chapter would be incomplete without tribal input and representation.

“We don’t know what the future holds,” Teeman says. “But we do know and take very seriously that we need to have a very strong voice in how it moves forward.”

The Rancher: Elias Eiguren

“I guess, by definition, I could be considered an activist,” says Elias Eiguren . “I don’t necessarily consider myself one. I place myself really in a place of stewardship.”

His family has significant history in the area, dating back more than a century to when his great-grandfather emigrated from the Basque Country. Today, he carries on a family ranching tradition, raising his children in the region while running about 500 commercial cattle, and growing alfalfa and hay to feed the cows. He and other ranchers rely on public lands to graze their cattle.

Continuing his family tradition of ranching in the Owyhee—and the unique, almost anachronistic lifestyle the area provides—are significant parts of who he is.

“When you can sit down and snuggle up on a set of lava rocks somewhere just to see if there’s a coyote trotting by, and have the silence be deafening within your ears because there are no other sounds going by—that’s amazing to me,” Eiguren says.

Eiguren is part of the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition, a group composed of cattle ranchers and local business people who depend on the area’s agriculture industry, as well as recreationalists and other locals interested in helping shape the future of the land. The way Eiguren sees it, ranchers like himself bring several benefits to the Owyhee ecosystem. Their irrigation systems provide water that helps sustain life from plants to insects to deer and antelope. Meanwhile, he says, responsible cattle grazing can help with wildfire suppression.

Eiguren ‘s primary concern is leaving a healthy, vibrant Owyhee region for future generations. That includes future generations of ranchers—like, potentially, his young son. He believes the coalition that includes ranchers like himself as well as environmentalists is interesting because they’ve been “at each other’s throats” for the last few decades.

“I am kind of surprised by it,” Eiguren says of the unlikely allies working together to protect the Owyhee. “At the same time, I think it’s a natural place for us to arrive at and I’m happy that we have.”

The key may be focusing on what people have in common—in this case, protecting a landscape they all hold dear.

“I think everybody takes that responsibility very, very seriously who’s in this group,” Eiguren says. “That is a large reason why I continue to stay engaged in the conversation.”

The Hunter: Michael O’Casey

The average city slicker might not equate hunting with protecting the environment. But hunter and angler Michael O’Casey is living proof this assumption would be wrong.

“A lot of people don’t recognize that the way hunters and anglers fund wildlife management is critical,” O’Casey says, noting the boost hunters’ fees and taxes give to wildlife management programs. “But it goes much beyond that—we care about the landscape because that’s what sustains the species we like to pursue.”

A lifelong Oregonian, today O’Casey is the state field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), a national group that works to conserve public lands and ensure that hunters and anglers have places to pursue their passions. Through the TRCP, O’Casey has helped bring several more sporting and conservation groups into the effort to protect the Owyhee.

“I grew up in a rural place where hunting and fishing was the lifestyle of most kids,” O’Casey says. “It got you outside, got you doing things that were healthy and active. As I get older and have kids of my own, I really see hunting and fishing as a heritage that I want to continue with my kids. It’s only done if we have public lands that are accessible and healthy.”

The Owyhee is one of his favorite places in the state. He believes people who share his pastimes have a unique role to play in protecting the area.

“I think the great thing about hunters’ and anglers’ value in this landscape is that we’re really a group of folks that tries to bridge the gaps, and tries to find the balance between what has become sort of an urban-rural divide in a lot of eastern Oregon,” O’Casey says.

One way O’Casey and others have worked to expand accessibility to nature is by partnering with a group called Soul River Inc., which connects inner-city youth with military veterans for excursions into the outdoors. The program, O’Casey says, “tries to create environmental advocates for the long term. Some of these kids have never, ever been in a place this wild or remote before.”

Beyond hunters and anglers, he’s optimistic about the coalition that has formed to defend the Owyhee.

“I’m excited about all the stakeholders that are coming together,” O’Casey says. “It really feels like we have some good cohesion and collective thoughts right now around this place and what we can do with it.”

The Nature Lover: Tim Davis

Tim Davis loves the Owyhee so much he founded Friends of the Owyhee, a nonprofit dedicated solely to preserving its varied landscape.

“We have volcanic activity in the northern section,” he says about the region where he grew up. “We have rolling plateaus with deep canyons in the south. On the easterly side, we’ve got Juniper forest and peaks pushing up to 10,000 feet.”

But Davis wasn’t always a nature-loving conservationist—a background that he believes makes him an even more effective steward of the land today.

“I grew up in a conservative community and I’ll be the first to say that I bad-mouthed conservation efforts as a younger individual,” he explains. “But because of that upbringing and the work I’m doing today to preserve the Owyhee, I understand the needs of the community more than others who grew up outside of this area. So it gives me a unique perspective of what this area really means to people.”

Davis’ journey from a kid who “bad-mouthed conservation efforts” to an advocate for the Owyhee unfolded in stages. First, he began to learn more about the ancient human history in the area, which sparked some appreciation. Then he worked as a wilderness firefighter, which exposed him to some of the Owyhee’s hidden backcountry. From there, he began reaching out to local conservation groups to learn more about what makes the region special.

Today, Davis may be passionate about protecting the Owyhee, and he may have started a non-profit to do just that—but don’t call him an activist.

“Honestly, I don’t like the word ‘activist,'” he says. “I see myself as a public land owner that loves public land in my backyard. I do this to protect public land for all of us. I don’t see myself as an activist—I see myself as a lover of public lands.”

Davis is indeed a public land owner. Just like Michael O’Casey. Just like Elias Eiguren. Just like Diane Teeman. Just like Corie Harlan. And just like anyone who pays the taxes that support those lands—including, perhaps, you who are reading this article right now. That’s part of the reason Davis isn’t shocked by the allies who have come together to protect the Owyhee. They’re all owners of public land. So, in a sense, working to preserve it is what anyone would do for something they own and value.

“We all want to see one thing,” Davis says. “We all want the end goal of preserving a big natural area for our future generations.”

 

Bank of the West would like to thank The Conservation Alliance for its collaboration on this project. Bank of the West is the only major US bank that is a member of The Conservation Alliance.

Author image

Sam Laird Senior Content Writer Bank of the West

Sam joined Bank of the West in 2019 after more than 10 years in journalism. He’s also worked as a teacher, a grant writer, and a janitor, and prefers to spend his free time in nature.

Taking ActionRead Next